Breathing new life into those old Silicon Graphics machines


Silicon Graphics have always made great workstations. I’m not just talking about brutal 3D monsters that could apply video feeds as textures in real time (over a decade ago). The machines are responsive and balanced, and this makes them perfect for general desktop use.

My Octane can’t be bogged down no matter what I throw at it, and since I upgraded to a Fuel I’ve found it almost impossible to overwhelm it. Annoyingly, too, as it means when I’m on the road and using my Macbook, I’m constantly frustrated by a gutless machine with a glitzy UI that gets in the way and slows things down.

With IRIX officially dead, the Open Source community is the only place any sort of IRIX-related development is happening. The crew over at Nekochan have developed Nekoware, an entire distribution of Open Source apps ported to IRIX, tuned and optimised for MIPS.

More power to the IRIX desktop, then. However, exciting changes are afoot, and it bodes well for older machines. Maybe it’s my UNIX background, but I don’t subscribe to the whole upgrade, upgrade, upgrade cycle that seems to define the PC industry. About 75% of all my work is done on kit that’s at over 5 years old. And I’m not talking scripting or coding, I’m talking web development, writing white papers and proposals, creating presentations, managing websites – all the baggage that goes along with running your own business.

What does cloud computing mean to you? With Microsoft’s recent talk about Windows 7 and a cloud version of Office, along with Google Apps, what do you actually need to have a productive and up-to-date desktop system, that can share files and data with anyone?

Turns out, it’s just a web browser. And what better platform to run a browser than the one used to serve out that first version of Netscape Navigator – IRIX.

So if you have an old Silicon Graphics machine – or you’ve got the chance to acquire one – grab the latest Nekoware release, and start playing with all those cool apps in the cloud. If we’re all going to have terminals again, well – they can be powerful and stylish ones.

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Intel’s Nehalem opens up some options for Silicon Graphics

Silicon Graphics News, supercomputing

Intel have announced their “Nehalem” processors will be coming to market in Q1 2009, with 2, 4 or 8 cores. Nothing to spectacular there (see Sun’s OpenSPARC CPU to see how to really scale with cores) but moving away from arguments about how multi-cores are better, Nehalem uses Intel’s QuickPath Interconnect (QPI) and that’s of great interest to Silicon Graphics customers.

QPI will be used by both Nehalem Xeon processors and the upcoming Tukwila Itaniums. This means that SGI’s biggest class of box – the Altix 4700 – could in theory be perfectly happy with either newer Itaniums, or make the move to cheaper Nehalem Xeons.

The next generation of Altix ICE blades will definitely be sporting the new Xeon processors (along with double data rate (DDR) Infiniband), but it’s the scalability of the bigger Altix NUMA boxes that are of interest to many customers. Given the architecture can scale to 128TB of shared memory, and with installations running up to 4096+ cores, being able to shove 8-way CPUs per socket would be a massive shot in the arm to the system – along with the increases in memory density and cooler running that will come with the new processors.

Being able to shove the cheaper Xeons into the high end offerings also means Silicon Graphics can lower production costs and increase margin, which given the recent quarterly earnings reports can only be a good thing.

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IBM buys Transitive – possible problem for SGI and Apple users?

Silicon Graphics News

Transitive are the guys who came up with the immensely clever emulation software that allows MIPS code to run on x86 and Itanium platforms. Apple also licensed a version called Rosetta, which enables PowerPC code to run on their newer x86 machines. Intel and Sun are users as well, allowing legacy SPARC code to run on Solaris on x86.

IBM have been using Transitive software for a while, allowing legacy x86 code to run on their Power machines. So the news that IBM has bought transitive could herald some problems ahead, especially with IBM saying “IBM is evaluating Transitive’s other products as part of its overall Systems product strategy.”

Hmm. You could argue that, come on, MIPS for SGI and PowerPC for Apple died years ago, upgrade already. Maybe that’s true for Apple, but a lot of Silicon Graphics gear is bought for the long haul, and isn’t part of the usual 2-3 year cycle of upgrades that desktops and workgroup servers get. A lot of MIPS based kit is still in support and still being heavily used – although the market can’t grow any more, that installed base isn’t shrinking too rapidly either.

It’s unclear at this stage what effect IBM dropping non-Power support for Transitive would have. Presumably new customers with MIPS gear would be left in the cold (although they’ve left it a bit late to think about a migration) but with no new versions of IRIX coming out it’s doubtful the announcement would have any effect on existing users.

Apple appear to have licensed Transitive code as Rosetta and bundled it into OS X. With Snow Leopard (10.6) rumoured to totally drop PowerPC support, no longer having an emulation layer in the OS could be a non-issue.

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HPCwire Reader’s Choice Awards – Silicon Graphics bags three

Silicon Graphics News

Supercomputing 08 is on all this week, so there should be shed loads of interesting news coming out. It’s one of the high points of the geek year, even if you’re not a Silicon Graphics fan, and each year I’m gutted I can’t attend.

Supercomputing 2008 08 SC08 logo

The latest news is from HPCwire, who have published their Reader’s Choice Awards. Silicon Graphics have been voted for three of them by HPCwire readers:

  • Best HPC Server Product or Technology was awarded to the SGI Altix ICE 8200 blade server
  • Best HPC Visualization Product or Technology went to Silicon Graphics RemoteVUE
  • one of the Top 5 Vendors to Watch in 2009 is SGI

The entire VUE software suite is going to be really interesting – it’s another great breakthrough for SGI and it has some real potential. The Altix ICE gear has been slowly gaining traction and although clusters don’t strike me as impressive as large (traditional even?) supercomputers, they’re still damn complex and very interesting technology.

Way down in Middle Earth, Weta Digital picked up a Reader’s Choice award for Best Use of HPC in the Entertainment Industry.

As a life long Ferrari fan (and driver!) I’m pleased to see the HPCwire Editor’s Choice award for Best Use of HPC in the Automotive Industry has gone to the Ferrari F1 team.

You can read through the full list of awards at

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Concept Computing – the Silicon Graphics Molecule

Silicon Graphics News

Concept cars have been around for a while. Every major motorshow, and vendors let their designers loose and parade around the results. Some of them are received so well they are actually made – I love the design that became the Lancia Stratos. Silicon Graphics seem to be going down this path with a fantastic piece of R&D madness at the Supercomputing 08 show.

Silicon Graphics have come up with the Molecule – 10,000 CPU cores in a single rack. Molecule uses the low power Intel Atom processor, which is more familiar from netbooks like the Asus EEE PC.

Silicon Graphics Molecule concept computer

Much like Sun’s UltraSPARC T1 and T2 CPUs, such a high density of Atoms within a single system image would give massive horizontal scalability for multi-threaded applications – although Sun have yet to approach this sort of density.

SGI reckon Molecule has the following advantages:

  • High concurrency with 20,000 threads of execution — 40 times more than a single rack x86 cluster system
  • High throughput with 15TB/sec of memory bandwidth per rack — over 20 times faster than a single rack x86 cluster system
  • Greater balance with up to three times the memory bandwidth/OPS compared to current x86 CPUs
  • High performance with approximately 3.5 times the computational performance per rack
  • Greener with low-watt consumer CPUs and low-power memory that deliver 7 times better memory bandwidth/watt
  • Innovative Silicon Graphics Kelvin cooling technology, which enables denser packaging by stabilizing thermal operations in densely configured solutions

Molecule is still only a concept, but it’s cool for a number of reasons. First off it shows SGI are still capable of some pretty awesome R&D hackery. It could also point the way for the next generation of SGI’s single system image machines, like the Altix 4700s. You can check out the full press release at

After the sad demise of Orion and their deskside super-cluster, maybe this will be the future of massively scalable computing? And with FPGAs becoming part of a large scale install, is this the fruit of Project Ultraviolet?

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